It is one thing to hear about the promises of God, or to read about the promises of God. It is another thing altogether to really feel and understand the promises of God. Especially when you are in a difficult place. It can be hard to think that God has a purpose when it seems like you’re just moving this pile of bricks from here to there and back again, or when you are facing seemingly endless health problems, or when you feel trapped. It can be hard to believe that God has a purpose when you look around and see the sparse sanctuary. It can be hard to believe that God has a purpose when this world seems to only tear itself apart.
It is easy to read about the promises of God, it is easy to hear about the promises of God, but when things don’t seem to be working, when things don’t seem to be turning out, it can be really hard to truly believe the promises of God.
But surely this is just a problem for us? Right? Surely this didn’t happen with the great patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith? Right? Well, maybe not.
Abram — later to become Abraham — is the perfect example of faith, I would always think. You see, when God told him to get up and move out of his country, away from his home, and move to the other side of the world — at least what he would have understood to be the world. What did Abram do? Genesis never reported him ever saying a word, just that he got up, packed up his tent, gathered his flock together, loaded his camels, and he and his wife Sarai headed off to a new land that they did not know, filled with people that they did not know, who spoke a language which he did not know. At the command of God, Abram just packed up and went. The perfect exemplar of faith.
Abram goes up and settles in what would be the Promised Land. There was a famine, though, and so he moved to Egypt, a major world power, where he would have access to food and resources. He did well there, although he had a little run-in with the Pharaoh — the ruler of Egypt — who sent him away. Abram went back to settle in Canaan, the land that God Promised to his descendants, while his nephew, Lot, settled elsewhere. God told him to get up again, and to walk the length and breadth of the land. So Abram got up, and he wandered all around, and finally made camp.
Up until this point, the relationship between God and Abram had been pretty straightforward. God speaks, Abram listens. God commands, Abram obeys. Abram, the perfect exemplar of faith. But we must keep reading, because the story of Abram doesn’t end there, and there is certainly more than what we have seen thus far. Abram, gets to a point where he says, “Wait…I don’t quite understand this.”
Twice in our passage today, we see Abram asking God some overdue questions. All this time, God has been telling Abram that he will be the father, the patriarch of a great nation. Abram, at this time, is very old, he is tired, and he knows that he likely doesn’t have a huge amount of time left. I can imagine Abram would begin to be concerned, after all, he didn’t have any children. So if he didn’t have any children, and he was going to the father of a great nation, it obviously couldn’t be his children, but it must be a servant in his house. I mean, it surely wouldn’t have added up to Abram.
“Uh…God?” Abram responded, “You keep telling me about all of these descendants that I’m going to have, but I don’t have any children…so how, exactly, is this going to work?” To answer, God points up to the sky and tells him, “Look up and count the stars. This is how many your descendants will be.”
And Abram believed. This is what is interesting, is that Abram believed. Abram “believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
God then told Abram, “I am the God who brought you from your home, and gave you this land for your descendents.” God reminded Abram that he has followed God so much already, reminding Abram of what God has done, and what God has promised.
Now, we are told that Abram believed, but he is not yet done asking questions.
“But how do I know this?” Abram asked.
Suddenly this Abram that I had mentioned in the beginning of this message, this Abram who is the perfect example of faith because he never asked questions, this Abram is gone. We’re left with another Abram. We are left with an Abram that believes, but yet has questions. Abram doesn’t really do anything that exciting or earth shattering himself, Abram is just another guy who sometimes does great things, who other times makes great mistakes and has been given an inkling of faith, who has simply been shown the immense grace of God. Abram is replaced with, well, a human being who is not that different from you or I.
We are left with this Abram who wonders how all of this is going to be accomplished because things just aren’t making sense.
You see, Abram believes, but he also seems to be wondering, can I trust God? Can God really do this? Is God telling the truth? Abram believes, but this doesn’t mean that all of his questions or uncertainties vanish. Abram has questions for God, and God gives him some answers, but not quite the answers, or in the form, that he was expecting.
Does this sound familiar? God says, “Go!” and we go. At some point, though, we begin to ask, “Wait…where are we going and how are we getting there?”
So Abram asked this question, and how does God respond?
God tells Abram to get a cow. Rather than telling Abram, God decides to show him something.
Now in the ancient world, a covenant — which is like a contract — was made in several different ways, one of them was to take an animal, cut it into pieces, and each of the parties would walk between the animal pieces. The unspoken message, then, is that if one of the parties breaks the covenant, they will end up like these animal pieces. Pretty gruesome, I know, but also very powerful. We’d probably take our commitments a little more seriously if we had to walk through animal pieces.
So Abram gets a cow, as well as several other livestock, and goes beyond what was told of him and he cuts them in two. Abram knows what’s going on here.
Abram them falls into a deep sleep and he has a vision and a torch and a smoldering pot pass through the animal pieces. It’s a common covenant ceremony, except Abram didn’t pass through the pieces, this covenant was one-sided, that is God promised these things to Abram, and God takes on the responsibility to fulfil them.
I think that this part of the story is quite telling. Abram, the person on whom God chooses to lay all of the promise for the world. The person that God chooses to carry on that promise. God chooses to put all of God’s chips into one person, and that person is Abram. This person suddenly begins asking questions about what is going on. “How is this going to work?” Abram asks. “How do I know that you’re telling the truth?” Abram asks.
This isn’t surprising, after all, Abram is human, human like you and I. This is not really that insightful at all. What is insightful about this is how God responds. God not only tolerates his questions, God is open to his questions, God responds to his questions, God seems to welcome his questions. God could have become frustrated with Abram, and decided to start over with someone else, someone who wouldn’t ask questions. But God doesn’t do this, not in the slightest.
And it is in this story that we are able to see the developing relationship between God and God’s people. God is not just a deity who commands, but does not otherwise involve Godself, no, God is deeply connected with God’s people, relationally so.
And while it would have been much easier for Abram if God would have just given him a vision that would clearly show how things would have played out, that’s not what happened. God gives him a little bit, and a little bit. Look at the stars, see me make a promise to you in a way that you understand. This does not take the place of faith, but it confirms faith.
As the writer of Hebrews tells us,
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, ‘as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.’
All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:8-16, NRSV.)
So when the promises are hard to believe, when they seem distant and unfounded, when you look around and you don’t see a path forward, remember Abram. Remember his questions, his conversations, and remember our gracious God who welcomed his questions and interacted with him.
So take heart, brothers and sisters, for you are in good company. And keep watch for those glimpses of the promise. Perhaps they won’t be obvious as a smoking pot and a flaming torch passing through split animals, but God continues to give glimpses of God’s promises to be viewed and accepted in faith.
Take heart, brothers and sisters, and let us remember the story of Abram, and let us gaze upon the steadfast promises of the Divine in faith.